The woman, a victim of an assault, sat in the courtroom’s witness chair and started to talk. As she told a judge what happened and how it affected her – giving what’s called a victim impact statement – the woman started to cry.
Quietly, the tawny-colored dog next to her placed its head on the woman’s lap. Honor is a trained assistance dog, and it seems like she can sense when someone needs her help.
That is this dog’s job, to help people get through a criminal justice process that can be incredibly stressful at times. “She should just be a silent force,” said Deputy District Attorney Merrill Hoult, Honor’s handler.
Honor has been helping witnesses and victims at the courthouse for about a month. The highly trained dog has been placed with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office to assist people in court, along with offering emotional support when victims are questioned about suspected sexual abuse or domestic violence.
5,000 Dogs that Canine Companions for Independence has placed with families and organizations since the nonprofit group’s founding in 1975
On Tuesday, Honor helped a 3-year-old girl at the Stanislaus Family Justice Center. The little girl was believed to be the victim of sexual abuse and physical abuse, so she was brought to the center to be questioned by a social worker.
The child was nervous entering the room, but she overcame that fear and completed the interview with Honor’s help. The social worker questioned the girl while Honor sat nearby.
In these interviews, children speak to a social worker while investigators and prosecutors monitor from another room, so the child doesn’t have to answer these difficult questions more than once.
Hoult says some victims are reluctant to reveal hidden secrets of abuse, especially to a social worker or investigators they don’t know. That hesitancy only increases in a crowded courtroom, but Honor is there to offer unconditional support.
“She likes you no matter what,” Hoult said. “And I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t like her.”
Honor is a 2-year-old golden-Lab cross, a hybrid breed mix of golden retriever and Labrador. She was bred to be an assistance dog by Canine Companions for Independence, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit organization that has placed nearly 5,000 assistance dogs – free of charge – since the group’s founding in 1975.
The group places about 250 dogs with qualified applicants annually, said Jamie Stapleton, a program support coordinator with Canine Companions.
The nonprofit provides service dogs to people with disabilities, such as a spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, arthritis and cerebral palsy. The group also offers hearing dogs specially bred to alert their handlers to key sounds with physical contact, such as nudging their leg or arm.
Canine Companions also breeds skilled companion dogs trained to work with a person with a disability under the guidance of a facilitator, typically a parent, spouse or caregiver who handles and cares for the dog. These dogs help people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism and Down syndrome to become less reliant on other people to complete simple daily tasks.
“There’s definitely a need ... a vulnerable population that can be served by service dogs,” Stapleton said.
49 Dogs that Canine Companions has placed at criminal justice agencies, such as prosecutors’ offices, police departments and child advocacy centers nationwide
Honor is one of the nonprofit’s facility dogs, which partner with a facilitator working in a health care, visitation or education setting. About seven years ago, the group started breeding facility dogs for criminal justice agencies.
Facility dogs such as Honor are being used at more than 70 criminal justice agencies, such as prosecutors’ offices, police departments and child advocacy centers, to help crime victims and vulnerable populations.
Canine Companions has placed 49 dogs in criminal justice agencies nationwide, including dogs in Stanislaus, Lake, Marin, Napa, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties. Eight other California counties, including Sacramento, have criminal justice assistance dogs from other dog training organizations.
The idea of criminal justice facility dogs was brought to Canine Companions by Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, one of the co-founders of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to promote the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.
O’Neill-Stephens’ son, living with cerebral palsy, was paired with one of the assistance dogs from Canine Companions. Working as a prosecutor, she brought the dog to work a few times and noticed the dog’s ability to relieve stress among staffers. “That’s how the idea came up,” Stapleton said.
While Honor’s primary duty is to help victims and witnesses, she also relieves stress for staffers at the courthouse and the District Attorney’s Office. Hoult said defense attorneys and court staffers will stop and pet Honor in the courthouse hallway during a short break from tension-filled hearings.
When Honor returns to the District Attorney’s Office, prosecutors and staffers take a moment to play with her. Hoult says Honor has a powerful “on-and-off switch.” When the dog is at work in the courthouse or an interview room, she’s calm and supportive. When she’s at home or in play time, Honor is just like any other pet.
“People at my office have really taken to her,” the prosecutor said. “They’ll throw the ball around with her in the hallway.”
Hoult volunteered to become Honor’s handler. The prosecutor cares for the dog at home and brings Honor to work each day. Hoult and Honor have each passed a public access test that allows them to enter any building while conducting official business. They are available to work on any type of case the District Attorney’s Office has.
Honor was trained extensively for six months at a Canine Companions facility, where she learned more than 40 commands. The dog’s temperament is well-suited for the courthouse setting. She’s quiet, calm, self-confident, and she has the ability to stay silent and hidden for hours.
“At trial, the goal is not to be seen by the jury,” Hoult said. “She’s more than just a pet therapy dog.”
Honor has yet to take part in a trial. The judge will inform the jury that a dog is assisting a witness, but Honor is trained to sit behind the witness stand out of sight. Keeping her out of the jury’s view will help prevent any prejudice against the defendant, Hoult said.
California statutory and case law supports the presence of assistance dogs in the courtroom, according to the prosecutor. Honor recently assisted an 8-year-old girl testifying in a preliminary hearing in a sexual abuse case. The dog helped the child through her experience on the witness stand.
Entering a courtroom for the first time to provide testimony could be an intimidating experience. Honor puts witnesses at ease; a woman changed her mind at the last minute to bring Honor with her into the courtroom.
While the nonprofit provided the dog for free, the District Attorney’s Office is responsible for Honor’s daily care. Hoult said Turlock’s Monte Vista Small Animal Hospital has provided free veterinary services.
Prosecutors didn’t name this dog. Honor, like other dogs, was given her name at the Canine Companions facility.
“So, it’s just a coincidence that she was placed with us,” the prosecutor said about her dog. “A total coincidence.”